I quite often see individuals in my practice who, despite the best of intentions, find themselves irresistibly drawn to eat none-too-healthy foods such as chocolate cake. I was therefore interested to read a recent study in which the additive nature of this oft-favoured food was assessed. Sophisticated scans revealed that the sight and taste of chocolate cake caused considerable activation in the brain, particularly in the areas associated with addiction. Apparently, the brain-teasing effects seen in this study were very similar to those recorded in individuals contemplating their next snort of cocaine. It seems that, in terms of additive potential, there’s a relatively thin line between cake and coke.
This research got me thinking about the subject of food addiction, and specifically why chocolate seems to be the most commonly-craved food of all. Some scientists have suggested that the unhealthy attachment to chocolate individuals can exhibit is related to its content of mind-altering substances such as caffeine, phenylethylamine (both stimulants) and anandamine (a marijuana-like substance). However, although chocolate looks like the ideal food for speed-freaks and dope-heads alike, the levels of psychoactive substances present in cocoa appear to be simply too low to explain its addictive qualities.
It is sometimes said that individuals who crave chocolate are suffering from a deficiency in magnesium – a nutrient found in relatively high concentration in chocolate’s cocoa component. However, one study found that white chocolate (which contains no cocoa and is therefore low in magnesium) helped satisfy chocolate cravings, but that this effect was not enhanced by the addition of actual cocoa. This research suggests that the yen for chocolate does not come from a need for magnesium. It also adds weight to the idea that the drug cocktail contained in cocoa has little or no part to play in chocolate’s additive potential.
Another theory about what drives people to eat chocolate concerns its ability to boost ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins. The fact that many individuals find that a episode of low mood can precede a chocolate binge appears to give support to this proposed chemical mechanism. However, a common cause of low mood is lower-than-normal levels of sugar in the bloodstream (known as hypoglycaemia), which also has the potential to provoke an intense desire to eat something sweet. The role of hypoglycaemia in chocolate craving is also suggested by the fact that chocoholics often exhibit other symptoms suggestive of blood sugar imbalance including mood swings and fluctuating energy levels (with a characteristic lull in the mid to late afternoon).
Most telling of all, however, is the observation that when individuals take steps to stabilise the level of sugar in the bloodstream, their unhealthy attachment to chocolate is usually severed without pain. The key to this is to ensure that regular meals are eaten, and that these are based around foods that generally give slow and sustained release of energy into the system including meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, fresh fruit, vegetables, oats and brown rice. Additional ballast for blood sugar can be provided by the having of healthy snacks such as fresh fruit and/or nuts between meals. Experience shows that getting blood sugar levels on a even keel often makes conquering chocoholism a piece of cake.